Friday, August 5, 2016

Book Review - Music and the People of God

da Silva, Jetro Alves. Music and the People of God. Self-published in Lexington, KY, 2016. viii + 121 pp. Softcover.

 Jetro Alves da Silva is an accomplished musician, having worked with Whitney Houston, El DeBarge, and others; a theologian; a student of music history and music in the Bible; and a proponent of the power of music to heal and transform.  In the abstract to his book, Music and the People of God, da Silva states that the project aims to ‘discuss the role of music among the people of God’ and its use through the centuries (iv).
This review offers a brief summary, a critique, and my assessment of the work.  Full disclosure: the author and I attended classes together at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts.  Who knew then that he had such a story to tell?
Broadly speaking, this is a book about music and faith.  It examines music from ancient times forward to today, with an extended discussion on the role of music in the Hebrew Bible.  Along the way, da Silva asks himself many questions about all the aspects of music and its role in faith formation.  His questions lead him into the psychology of religious experience and the theology of music, its history and its purpose.  He takes us on a survey of musical tastes ranging from the ancient Egyptians to Martin Luther and John Calvin to 50 Cent and Jay-Z.  His references are extensive and his research impressively deep.  He knows his topic well and intimately.  Much has been written on the social history of music but I am not sure anyone else has quite taken the approach presented here.
Da Silva believes that music has ‘the power to make a simple lyric or a powerful philosophical statement become digestible to the one who is listening’ (1).  In that sense, I believe his intention in writing this book is to draw a line from the music of nature – the sound of the waves of the oceans, bird song, trumpeting elephants, the sound of tree leaves moving in the wind – directly to the music of the people of God in praise of God.  For da Silva, music is both mystical and spiritual, and he connects it with the Holy Spirit, the third person in the Christian Trinity and the ruah of the Hebrew Bible.
As a musician and performer, and then as a music teacher and trained theologian, da Silva has traveled widely and acquired vast experience both personally and professionally.  From Brazil to Brooklyn, West Africa to Los Angeles, to Boston and beyond, da Silva’s exposure to a variety of musical forms gives him a unique perspective on his topic.  All that he has learned in his craft has focused his thinking about the role of music and its use in spiritual and religious settings.
The idea behind the book, the thing that animated Jetro’s urge to write, is that musicians can give their best to the Lord, to glorify God, to keep God at the forefront of their thoughts in their playing, singing, and even in their rehearsing.  In our listening and in our appreciation of the musician’s efforts, music can be a means to grace, emotional healing, transformation, and to sanctuary.  Through its long history as a means of human endeavor, through all its forms from primal drumming to modern Jazz and hip-hop, music has generated joy, controversy, and its own varieties of language, not to mention much that endures in our hearts and minds as rhythms and tunes.  Hearing a favorite song can often transport us back to the time and place when we first heard it, just as a favorite aroma can bring us back to the kitchens of our youth.
Music has been a part of human life experience from the very beginning.  It is used in all aspects of our cultures, in celebrations, funerals, battlefields, religious ceremonies and more.  We listen to music for pleasure.  We create music as an offering.  We present music as a gift to God and to our neighbors.  It has always been thus.  But the musical form is never stagnant.  Throughout its long history, music has evolved, changed, influenced other forms across the nations, and in general has been a constant part of our life together.
The very sounds of the earliest forms of music have been mostly lost to us, though we can pick up traces through ancient sources such as the clay tablets of Assyria, the bas reliefs of Egyptian tombs, and in the psalms of the Hebrew Bible.  Through these, we can know which cultures used which types of instruments and how they used music in all their moods and emotions.  A Hebrew shofar, for example, had a different use and purpose than a Phoenician pipe.  This exploration is just part of the journey da Silva takes us on in this book.
In order to realize this ambitious project, da Silva has appropriately broken his task into discrete, manageable sections.
Four chapters follow a brief introduction in which Jetro describes the groundwork of his own life and experience.  Chapter one offers a summary of musical instrumentation in ancient times and our resources for understanding their use.  Chapter two talks about how music is used as therapy, beginning with King Saul in the depths of his depression, and for emotional and physical healing.  Chapter three discusses music from a theological perspective.  Men like J.S. Bach, Martin Luther, and John Calvin had strong and differing opinions on the use of music especially its use in a church setting.  Luther, a musician, was for it as he believed music was a gift from God.  John Calvin, on the other hand, held the contrary view that music came from people, not God.  Lastly, chapter four addresses music as a spiritual and sacred practice, and forms the heart of the book. 
In my view, as someone with some musical training in his background and as a minister-without-portfolio, this is all fascinating stuff.  In a way, it’s good to know what Luther thought about hymns used in church.  A trained musician looking for a broader view of what it is we do on Sunday, or why, or how it came to be, might find this book to be of great interest.  Even therapists who work with people suffering from PTSD or depression can derive something new here.
Knowing Jetro, I can clearly hear his voice speaking to me from one page to the next.  He keeps to the book’s scope pretty well and seldom strays from his mission to show us the relationship between music and God.  In fact, quite often he goes way beyond just presenting some interesting nugget by offering two or three other points of view, and he almost always moves the ball forward by including his own thoughts and opinions.  His sources extend from the truly ancient to the contemporary, exposing us to a wide range of thinking on a given aspect of the discussion.
One thing jumped out at me as something that might spark a discussion, and that is the dance performed at Herod’s birthday (25).  I’m not sure the goal of the dance per se was to ‘persuade Herod to kill John the Baptist,’ though that was certainly an end result.  The daughter’s goal was merely to please Herod and his (male) guests (Mark 6:22).
At 121 8.5” x 11” double-spaced pages (my copy lacks page 122, da Silva’s C.V.), this first edition print-on-demand book is pretty slender despite the wealth of information it contains.  In a smaller size with a different font, it might feel more substantial.  It is, however, not lightweight in any other way.
There are some typos here and there, too, mostly around the numbering and formatting of just a few footnotes, and sometimes a dropped word, but overall, this is a thoughtfully done academic paper in book form.
Overall, this is a great introduction to a complex topic.  Da Silva tells us where we are going and then takes us there.  We cover a lot of ground, from archaeology to mysticism, but not once did I feel as if I were on my own, even in the midst of the discussion about the relationship between music and neurology and psychology.  In fact, da Silva is quite adept at presenting heavy material at a level appropriate for the reader.
I almost want to join a choir now, or at least to revisit the piano as a tool for tying hymns to sermons.  This book provides greater understanding at several levels, especially in how we experience music from within.
In its current form, I recommend this book to anyone who plays music in church and wants to know more about how we got to where we are today.  Non-church people might not be attracted to this kind of book, but I know some church pastors who might be quite interested.  All I would change is the format, and to fix the few errors in the text.
A great effort by a good man and a great husband and father.